Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this book back in college. At the time I had thought it so-so…lots of mumbo jumbo about God and what not. I read it again this month for our book club and I can say I have not read this before. If I had, I would have remembered sitting up all night unable to sleep.

The world in PotS is a couple of steps to the side of us, closer to a probable dystopian future. Entire neighborhoods have walls around them, unemployment is rampant, no one drives because the cost of gas is too high, firefighters and police have grown more expensive and a new drug called pyro causes people to go on arson rampages. And throughout all this, Lauren Olamina is coming of age.

Prior to reading this, I had read the Wastelands anthology by John Joseph Adams, so this was a fitting endpiece to all the dystopian literature I had been reading. It was frightening to read of the rampant poverty and crime that existed outside Lauren’s neighborhood, and how it slowly seeped in. Lauren’s a bit of a prophet–she sees disaster coming on the horizon, but being a teenager, no one pays any heed to her until it’s too late. But Lauren doesn’t plan to mourn, or try to get things back to the way they used to be. She plans to survive, and more than that, she plans to transcend.

That’s what set this apart from the other dystopian stories I’ve read. In PotS, we see the beginnings of an entirely new religion, Earthseed, which equates God with Change. Very interesting idea, since in Christian theology, God never changes. The verses that spell out the Earthseed religion at times seem too zenlike and simplistic (one of the characters even point that out–a nice touch), and there were some statements I couldn’t agree with (I’m more in the God is Love camp, so I can’t full agree that God is an impersonal god, since love can’t be impersonal). At the same time, the book did make me think how change has been a huge influence throughout history. (My own realization I’ve been trying to reconcile over the past few years–God doesn’t change, but people do).

I want to read the next book, which I believe goes into more detail about the religion. I’m now certain I read that book, and now I have Lauren’s background, I think I’ll be able to appreciate it more.

Today, I picked my son up from school. We walked home, kids waving goodbye as they passed by us. We passed by the community garden, where there has been a problem of vandalism this summer, some veggies getting smashed before they’re ripe. At home, I learned my son had tossed a whole sandwich away and chastised him on it. Later on, my inlaws got into a small fender bender and a policeman came by to make a report and make sure they were okay.

Then I got on the internet and learned about a black woman who had been set on fire by three men and racist slurs scratched into her car, another mass shooting in Wisconsin, and child laborers in China.

Butler’s dystopia is a lot farther, and yet a lot more closer, than we think. Five acorns out of five and maybe I should pay more attention to the oak tree in our backyard. Just in case.

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Review: Redwood and Wildfire

Redwood and Wildfire
Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops for the past few months now. I’ve always been a fan of bluegrass, but when I learned that blacks also did old timey music, that it was the precursor to the blues, it was like discovering a history I never knew of myself. Reading Redwood and Wildfire was also like that.

Having lived in Chicago most of my life, I never understood what my ancestors went through when they migrated from the south. I married a white man by choice; I have white friends by choice; everything I do from music to church is based on the freedom of choice. I doubt I could have done any of the things I’m doing now back then, not so openly and freely. Reading “Redwood and Wildfire” reminded of what my grandmother told me when we were watching “The Help”: In the south, you could live next to white people but you can’t be better than them. In the north, you can be better than white people; you just can’t live next to them.

Aidan and Redwood lived in the wrong time. As George says in the book: “Peach Grove is no place to be a man.” Redwood learns it’s no no place for a woman either. Neither, for that matter, is Chicago. This book deals with some hard issues: lynchings, Jim Crow, minstrel shows, prejudice. Redwood wants to live her life free, and when she finally runs of to Chicago, she has to deal with the shame of ‘cooning’ in minstrel shows. Aidan, meanwhile, is haunted from the ghost of Redwood’s mother, who had been lynched before his eyes, trying to drown out her pleas to “do right” with alcohol.

Yet, there is always an underlying streak of optimism. You have Iris, Redwood youngest sister, who is joy incarnate, You have Doc, who has a superiority complex yet deep compassion for hurt people, and Carissa, probably my favorite character of the book, an uptight Christian who becomes Redwood’s closest ally.

And there is magic. Wonderful, beautiful, wild magic. Redwood catches a typhoon in her hand, then acts as if it’s no big deal. People change into animals in a blink of an eye. There’s time travel. A wild dance with a lionness. And lots of hoodoo. And at the heart of all this magic is a love story, as Redwood and Aidan dance around each other, filled with desire, but afraid to get too close.

Being in an interracial relationship myself, this book truly nutured me. It was also wonderful to see my hometown, both painted as a city a dreams and the broken down, racially separated place it really was (and in many parts, still is). I can see why this won the Tiptree. It had me crying and laughing all the way to the end. 5 banjos out of 5, and may I ask where is the movie of this? SOMEONE MAKE A MOVIE FOR THIS. And put the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the soundtrack. It will be awesome.

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Celebrating Black Future Month

Remember Black History Month back in February? Yeah, I didn’t either. Sadly, my observance of the month has faded along with Kwanzaa, which my family never really celebrated anyway (in fact, it never even entered our heads to celebrate it). I do have fond memories of all the stuff we had to learn during Black History Month, and I’m a little sad that Daniel won’t have that same experience, not unless we send him to an all black school (and to be honest, I want him to be exposed to many different cultures, not just white and black).

That all said, this past March has been interesting. It feels like I’ve spent the entire month not just discussing multi-ethnic matters, but reconciling on how that applies to me as a black writer.

In the past, I really struggled on what made me a black person other than just color. I didn’t act like a "typical" black person; in fact, as a kid, I caught a lot of flack from other black people because I "acted white". I spoke proper. Always had my head in a book. Wasn’t very interested in singing or dance groups. In high school and college, I got to hear all the fun names that goes along struggling with black identity—like oreo or zebra. Fun, fun times. See, this is why I don’t like thinking about high school days.

It got to the point where I felt more "black" among my white friends than I did with other blacks. So I hung out with whites more. It was where I felt the most comfortable. The way I figured it,

Now, fast forward to this past March. I’m attending our Wiscon Book Club, Beer and Marmalade, and one of the things we decide to talk about was a racism discussion that’s been happening on LiveJournal appropriately called "RaceFail 2009". I’m not going to spell out the whole history of that; clicking on the link would give you an idea, although you can get a more detailed history of the whole mess at Ann Somerville’s LiveJournal. But anyway—I didn’t really want to do it, as any discussion about race makes me highly uncomfortable. But I dutifully read some of the essays out there, and I came across this post "We worry about it Too".

That essay hit a strong nerve with me.

You see, when I started writing, I had prided myself on being a ‘black’ writer of speculative fantasy. I figured it would make me stand out more, especially since I was writing a fantasy novel that contained black characters in it. Heck, it had a black woman who was a main character. But when I first wrote Willow, she wasn’t the main protagonist. The young man she protects, the white male, he was the protagonist. Most of the book was written from his point of view, as well as several others who were white.

I once took a draft of Willow’s Synopsis to an agent at the Midwest Writer’s Conference a while back. One of the things she said was, "It looks like the female character is stronger than the male. Why isn’t this in her point of view?" And I just stared at her, because 1) it didn’t really occur to me to write in the black female’s point of view, and 2) deep down, it scared me. Who was I, a black woman, mind you, to know what an actual black woman felt like?

(And yes, I know most of my short stories have black characters as the main protagonist—but it’s different when you write sci/fi or plain speculative, because it’s easier to picture black people in the future. But in fantasy? Most are set within Eurocentric settings; any black people would be relegated to an African tribal status.)

My sister, who has a LiveJournal of her own, puts it down the best way when it comes to her writing fanfiction: "I write about white characters because that’s what I read when I grew up." I’m the exact same way. I’ve grown so used to seeing white males in fantasy that when I started writing a fantasy novel, it was easy to fall into that same line of thinking.

My realization about my main characters came before I read that essay by Nojojojo, of course. But the timing couldn’t have been better. Because I read it just when I started my second rewrite of Willow’s prologue. And it made me seriously think. Am I writing from this character’s POV because it’s what I’m used to, or should I write from this other character to give him/her more of a voice in the book?

It’s a hard thing to juggle, but I’ve rewritten the prologue and chapter 1 of Willow, and I think that so far, both have come out a lot stronger. I’m eager to see this novel through Coren’s eyes. It’s risky, but it’s also very exciting.

That’s how I feel about this whole RaceFail thing. Sure, a lot of people on both sides have vented and/or said very stupid things (I almost don’t read comments anymore), but some very insightful and deep discussion has come because of this. And there are attempts to further the conversation. Wiscon will be holding its first Cultural Appropriation Class (I mentioned this in my last post), and luckily, I’ll be able to attend that. There’s also been a great promotion to read more fantasy and sci/fi by people of color, which I highly, highly recommend (and I’ve started doing myself). There’s also a new small press in the works called Verb Noire who caters specifically to people of color in the scifi/fantasy community. Worth checking out.

This is probably the best time to be a black speculative fiction writer. We’re forging into new territory here. It’s scary, risky and it’s never really been done before. But it’s long overdue. And I think this whole experience is helping to strengthen my own identity as a black writer. For the first time, I can own up to that and really feel like I mean it, instead of feeling like some imposter.

Of course, my hubby would suggest that’s because inside of me there’s a Japanese girl perpetually stuck at age thirteen, but that’s not true. She’s sixteen. That’s a world of difference.

New Story: “The Liberation of Roscoe White” published at The Town Drunk

Hot dog! A new story of mine is up and running! I like it when I get my stories published!

“The Liberation of Roscoe White” was among one of the first short stories I workshopped with my writers’ group back in Chicago. It’s also the first story I ever wrote that utilizes the “F-word”, or any amount of swearing, for that matter. An interesting learning process, to say the least. If you’re sensitive to strong language, you’ve been warned.

I had a lot of fun writing it, and I’m grateful for The Town Drunk publishing it. I also find it a tad ironic, seeing that two of my favorite print repositories of fantasy have dried up. Hmm…

Anyway, “The Liberation of Roscoe White” is up. Enjoy!

“Crowntree” is up at Ideomancer!

And yet another story of mine is up to read! Yippee! And it’s at Ideomancer, of all places!

This one has a special place in my heart. It’s based off an actual tree and stone ring I saw in someone’s backyard. Seeing the tree took me back to the days of when I was a kid, and our own backyard.

We lived in a cul-de-sac, and our backyard was adjacent to a trainyard that had a slice of forest serve as a barrier of sorts. Several feet of this forest protruded into our own backyard, so basically we had a lawn with a couple of trees, then a wooded area that had a path going through it, so in a way, it was like our own forest preserve. And in the city of Chicago, that’s pretty special.

Towards the back of our backyard, there was a tree we could climb. It had a space where two or three kids could stand up, and there was even an odd stump that served as a makeshift chair. My sisters and I, and our friends, would go to the backyard and play ‘king of the castle’ and sometimes tell stories (I was doing that even way back then).

Thinking about it now, our backyard was a kid’s paradise.

So fast forward a couple of decades, I’m at a friend’s house for the first time, stuffing Easter eggs. I happen to look into their backyard, and lo and behold, there’s the tree. They also have a strange concrete ring that we couldn’t really figure out what it was used for. My imagination kicked in and “Crowntree” was born.

What’s also cool about this story is that this is the first story that got into the exact place I wanted it to go to. I’ve always been a fan of Ideomancer and their stories, so I made it one of my goals to get a story in to them. It’s quite a prestigious market, and I’m very happy that they chose my story (and the other stories in this quarter’s issue are wonderful too).

Go read “Crowntree” at Ideomancer!